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When the pandemic hit, people grabbed their phones. Call volume went through the roof. So did the number of texts. The CEO of Verizon said that company's handled as many as 9 billion messages a day. That's a lot of thumbs on a lot of screens and a lot of eyes on the receiving end. As NPR's Danny Hensel reports, many of those eyes squint at punctuation and text messages.
DANNY HENSEL, BYLINE: Katherine Rooks remembers the day her grammatical world came crashing down. It began when she sent a simple text to her son.
KATHERINE ROOKS: And I could tell from his response that he was agitated all of a sudden. And when he came home, he said, what? What did you mean by this? And I said, well, I meant, you know, see you later or something. And he said, but you ended with a period. I thought you were really angry.
HENSEL: But she was not angry.
ROOKS: No. That's just, you know, how we end a sentence.
HENSEL: Maybe if you're writing a book, linguist Gretchen McCulloch told NPR, but not in something as informal as a text.
GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: In an informal context, you don't need the period anymore to distinguish between one sentence or one phrase and the next because you're just going to hit send in a chat context. You can just send the message.
HENSEL: So the period has lost its meaning in text messages. But McCulloch says it has a new purpose, to express seriousness. And that's OK in some situations.
MCCULLOCH: But the problem is if you say OK, sounds good, and you add that note of seriousness, now you've got positive words and serious punctuation. And the clash between them is what creates that sense of passive aggression.
CELIA KLIN: Texting in many ways is more like a spoken conversation that it is like anything else.
HENSEL: Celia Klin teaches psychology at Binghamton University.
KLIN: But with spoken conversations, a lot of the meaning that we convey is not with the words, right? It's from facial expressions, tone of voice. But we're missing all of that when we're texting. So what we have done is found ways to insert that kind of emotional interpersonal information into texting using what we have. And what we have is things like periods.
HENSEL: Klin conducted a study in 2015 that asked undergraduates to look at a text message exchange where an innocent question received a one-word response, yep. Some saw the message with a period, some without.
KLIN: And we found consistently through many experiments that yep with a period resulted in responses that were more negative. So people thought yep with a period was less friendly, less sincere.
HENSEL: Most of the young texters I spoke to agreed.
JUAN ABENANTE RINCON: I actually really don't like getting text messages that end in periods because it always feels so harsh and passive aggressive. Like, are you mad? What's going on? Like, did I do something wrong?
EMMY KUPERSCHMID: It feels very much like suddenly someone's a teacher or a parent. I feel like I'm being scolded a little bit.
EMMA GOMETZ: If it's like, OK, period, that's, like, I don't want to talk to you anymore (laughter).
KALINA NEWMAN: It's in the same vein of somebody saying we need to talk and then not saying what they want to talk about. It's very easy to read into.
HENSEL: That was Juan Abenante Rincon, Emmy Kuperschmid, Emma Gometz and Kalina Newman.
ISABELLE KRAVIS: Personally, I'm a big fan of proper grammar.
HENSEL: Isabelle Kravis, though, is willing to reserve judgment.
KRAVIS: Like, if we're just talking about, like, our favorite movie or something and someone uses a period at the end of the sentence, I'm not going to take it, like, aggressively.
HENSEL: And if you think we're making a mountain out of a, well, dot, you have company. Celia Klim, the study author, said her work prompted some backlash.
KLIN: People were enraged, and they thought it was an insult to their first grade teacher and their grandmother and, you know, America as we know it.
HENSEL: But, she says, language changes. And that's a good thing.
KLIN: Language evolution's always happened. It's going to continue to happen. And isn't that great that we are so linguistically flexible and creative?
(SOUNDBITE OF TEXT MESSAGE NOTIFICATION TONE)
HENSEL: Danny Hensel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX LABAND'S "FALLING OFF A HORSE")
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